Steven crawled through the narrow opening of the cave, looking for the hint of light that had caught his attention. He'd followed it through several turns, so there shouldn't be anything shiny in here, this far underground, but he'd seen something. He decided if he didn't find it in the next few minutes, he'd go back, even if he had to back all the way out because there was nowhere to turn around.
He was just about to give up when the passage widened into a huge, sparkling cavern. Crystals of all sorts covered the walls, lit by the dim light of—
What was that?
Something flickered at the far side of the cavern. Steven stood up and started to move between the shiny (and sharp) rocks, when the light came closer.
It was bouncing between the crystals. A little beam of white light, mostly faded, jumping around the walls and floor and ceiling, not finding any dirt to sink into so it just… kept going. Huh.
That's all he had time to think before it hit him, right in the chest, and he felt his gem… twist. He was overwhelmed by a sense of wrong and pain and... corruption was the only other word that fit. That must've been a last remnant of the Corrupting Light, trapped here in a crystal cavern for thousands of years, growing weak but not stopping until it had found its target: a Crystal Gem.
Quickly, he licked his thumb and rubbed it over his gem, and he felt something shift, re-align back into place. Whew, he thought; that was close.
Shaken, he left as quickly as he could. Corruption was scary. Now he wondered how many other lost fragments might be scattered around the earth, captured or frozen or hidden away like this one.
He made it back to the van, and thought about just curling up in the back, but… he really wanted to be away from here. He drove to the nearest town, some tiny place on the edge of a forest, and paid for a room in the hotel. He wanted to sleep somewhere with real walls.
Steven tossed and turned in the strange bed. His dreams were full of crystal shards, growing and fragmenting and twisting into spirals, reaching for him like claws, dripping with toxins that eroded the ground beneath them, hissing with an eerie resonance as he tried to run from them. They kept growing, faster than he could run, until he was surrounded, and the started to grow over him, curving to cover the sky and growing inward until he could feel the spikes start to pierce him—
He jolted awake to find a loose spring from the bed digging into his back. Just a dream. Just a terrible, scary dream.
He didn't want to go back to sleep right away, so he took a walk.
This place looked creepy at night. (Still, not as creepy as his dream, so he kept walking.) The hotel looked more run-down in the moonlight, with the ivy looking like black fissures along the walls and the street lamp throwing the fence shadows into strange angles. He walked to the large, mostly bare tree at the end of the courtyard, mostly just to have something to walk to and return from, when he saw the shadows move behind it.
He circled the tree but saw nothing, so he shrugged, but when he started walking back to the hotel, something caught his eye - something glowing pink, just on the other side of the tree.
He ran back around it, and… nothing. He turned to walk back to the hotel - and there was Rose Quartz, big as life, standing on the path between him and the hotel.
"You're… you're not real," he said.
"It's you who is not real," she replied. "I'm the original. You're a figment of my imagination, a fever dream from a few weeks' dalliance out of a lifetime of thousands of years."
"Mom?" Steven's voice came out broken.
"I'm not your mother, Steven. Mothers exist after giving birth. You stole my life from me, and I want it back!" With that, she grew tall, many times taller than him, towering over the hotel, and reached for him.
He found himself in a graveyard, surrounded by tombstones, but he had lost the giant Rose Quartz. He stopped to catch his breath, leaning against a mausoleum with a broken angel on top, and tried to figure out what happened.
Am I still dreaming? He pinched himself. Hard. Ouch. No, he wasn't dreaming.
As he looked around, trying to decide how to get back to the hotel, he saw a flash of pink from behind the mausoleum. He gathered himself to run again, but it wasn't Rose Quartz this time.
It was Pink Diamond.
"You… you can't be real, either."
Pink sighed. "I thought we'd been over this. YOU are the one who isn't real, Steven. I fought a war. I left my family to protect a new world. I challenged the hierarchies on Homeworld. I never shattered anyone," Pink told him. "That was all you. You took everything joyful and good and noble about me and twisted it, exposed it to earth's corruption, and— now look at you, pretending to be your own person instead of me, me, ME…"
She dove for him, hands growing into claws, and Steven ran again.
He found himself back near the hotel, Pink long lost, and fortunately he didn't see Rose anywhere either. He sunk down against the tree, unable to move even the little bit to get back into the hotel.
He knew better than to hope he'd lost them, and sure enough, he saw a flicker of pink from the other side of the tree. He was too tired to stand when Pink Steven walked around to greet him.
"Oh," he said, " it's you."
"Aren't you… me?" asked Steven. "Me, without the human parts?"
Pink Steven sneered at him. "Hardly. It's the other way around. You're me with a weak fleshbag attached. You can't even run a few miles! You're a disgrace to gemkind, a walking corruption, an infant meddling in the business of people who've been managing planets longer than your species has been alive! You took my home away from me, Steven—"
At that, Steven knew another attack was coming, and he tried to crawl away, but he was tired, so very tired, and he wound up curling up around his knees, trying to stand to walk the last few paces into the hotel. Pink Steven rained blows upon his back, each punch accompanied by an accusation:
Pink Diamond materialized near him, and started scratching at his head and arms. Steven cried as he curled up tighter against both her attacks and her insults.
Rose Quartz joined the two of them, all three spinning around him, raining down blows and scratches and kicks on him as he covered his ears, trying not to hear. But nothing he did helped; it was like their voices came from inside himself, all his worst fears echoing through his head.
Steven was crying so hard he could barely see them, their pink shapes a blur of claws and fists and feet. He curled into a ball, arms over his face and head, trying to shield himself as his tears streamed down, over his nose and mouth, and onto his shirt, soaking the fabric… and finally reaching his gem.
As his spit and tears streamed over his gem, the three pink ghosts started to quiet, then fade, and finally vanished.
The night was quiet, and the full moon lent a gentle glow to the empty courtyard, which no longer looked macabre or frightening. He realized that his tears had finished the healing process that he'd started back in the cave - a single lick wasn't enough for a direct bolt of Corrupting Light, even a weak one.
It was like a dream, he decided. Just a really bad nightmare.
...A really bad nightmare that I'm going to be thinking about for a long, long time.
Steven stood on wobbly legs and went back to his hotel room. He didn't fall asleep at all.